Saturday, January 01, 2005

Dawn on New Year's Day

January 1, 2005
Moraka Beach, Equatorial Guinea
N 3.25878° E 8.48594 ° Elevation 8 feet. Temp: 75° F

It’s 6 a.m. on New Year’s Day as I write this, which means our friends and family back in the States are blowing their noisemakers and celebrating the New Year at this moment. Here on Bioko, the gray sky with an ambivalent mixture of clouds is beginning to brighten -- a hint of sunrise is in the air. Several tree hyraxes in the forest nearby are our noisemakers, cutting loose with their shrill, ascending call in harmony with the rhythmic crash of the surf and the constant thrum of the crickets.

I hear the camp cook banging some pots over by the kitchen, which has acquired the perpetual smell of fish. I’ll be getting up soon to pack my day bag. A few of us, including Inquirer Photographer Barbara Johnston, will make an overnight hike today to the village of Ureca, the only settlement on Bioko island’s rainy southern coast. We hope to view a sample of life there in a remote village and to talk with villagers about what conservation strategies make sense to them. Ureca is about a five hour hike from here, with several stream crossings.

Since we’ll be packing light, I’m leaving the electronic gear at the beach camp, so this blog will go silent until tomorrow.

Friday, December 31, 2004

Big turtles and starry nights

December 31, 2004
Moraka Beach, Equatorial Guinea
N 3.26537° E 8.42135 ° Elevation 15 feet. Temp: 80° F

Late last night I and Barbara Johnston, the Inquirer’s photographer, went out on a moonlit walk on the beach here to look for nesting sea turtles. Our guide was the chief of the local turtle-protection patrol, Epifanio Mualeri Biri. I wrote a story about the turtles, which is supposed to run in the newspaper in the next few days, but I’m not sure the newspaper story conveys what a spectacular sight it is to see a half-ton reptile thrashing about in the sand, laying its eggs.

The GPS coordinates above are for the location where we saw the turtles. It was breathtaking, getting a close look at an animal like the leatherback sea turtle, which has survived for millions of years but is under threat from hunters. It’s a huge creature, jaw-dropping amazing.

We woke up to a clear day today, warm and humid. Tent camping in the tropics – there’s nothing like waking up sticky and sore from sleeping on a hard surface.

But the weather was sublime today. It got up to about 86 degrees in the shade, with a mild wind from the south blowing across our camp. Half the group, including Arcadia University professor Gail W. Hearn, departed this morning to make camp in the Gran Caldera de Luba, the ancient volcano crater that offers the monkeys the most protection from hunters. With half the tents struck, this beach camp has become a bit more quiet, which is fine with me. It was rather crowded here. The group hiked out on a beach trail wearing their beach sandals – the trail crosses several rivers, including one that is waist deep, before ascending to the caldera. They hike slowly, so they will take two days to reach the main camp in the caldera. An Equatoguinean porter carrying 60 pounds can make the hike in only a day.

Here at the beach camp, I’m wrapping up the reporting and writing on a few stories that will appear in the newspaper in the coming days. There’s music in the air as the Equatoguinean students and professors hang out and listen to Cuban salsa playing from portable speakers connected to Professor Wayne Morra’s iPod. They say they’re looking forward to a fiesta tonight, New Year’s Eve. I wonder what they have in store.

After a pleasant bath in a cool stream, I settled down under the tarp that protects our power plant – the gasoline generator and the 12-volt car battery I brought in to keep us supplied with juice. The sun has set, rice and beans were served and a full sky of stars came out – Barbara was astonished there were so many stars, but those of us who have been in Africa before have experienced this delightful sight before.

My apologies for not keeping up on the questions submitted to the Web site. We were unable to make a decent Internet connection on the satellite telephone last night – I think the problem was with our service provider. It was rather strange – I could not connect to many sites, but when I tried logging on to my bank, I was able to get in clean and easy. It’s nice to know I can pay my bills while I’m here in the rainforest.

Tonight the service is restored and our spirits are soaring as 2004 draws to a close.

Happy New Year to all.

Thursday, December 30, 2004

Photo from the landing

landing on Bioko

Expedition members and porters pull ashore on Moraka beach near the southern end of Bioko Island. BARBARA L. JOHNSTON / Inquirer

Editor's note: More photos will be available online soon. In the meantime, you can see photos from the trip accompanying theses stories:

Camping during the dry season

December 30, 2004
Moraka Beach, Equatorial Guinea
N 3.25878° E 8.48594 ° Elevation 8 feet. Temp: 81° F

Our group settled into a routine today at this gritty camp on the remote southern shore of Bioko island.

The expedition from Arcadia Univeristy has set up its beach camp among a small clearing in this seemingly endless forest of palms and broadleaf trees. My wife, Amy Blackstone, and I stayed fairly dry in our tent last night, when it seemed to rain pretty much nonstop. A few other campers did not fair so well. One lad from Wichita woke up with a couple of inches of rain gathered at his end of the tent. He’s not in Kansas anymore.

The Arcadia professors leading the group, Gail W. Hearn and Wayne A. Morra, assigned the 24 members of the expedition to various tasks this morning. Three groups went off on established census trails to count wildlife. Most came back very excited to have seen animals -- there were quite a few sightings of red colobus monkeys and some guenons. Inquirer Photographer Barbara Johnston even caught sight of a drill – the endangered primate that is the central focus of the expedition’s survey. Alas, the drill did not remain stationary long enough for Barbara to get off a shot. Wildlife photography, especially in a rainforest, makes sports photography seem easy.

In the next few days we’ll ask Barbara to offer up an account on this blog about the challenges she is facing.

I spent the morning getting our satellite telephone gear up and running and to work out some kinks in our power supply. The rain paused throughout much of the day, allowing us to do a little laundry in a creek – the fine, black volcanic sand of the beach seems to work its way into every crevice of equipment and clothing. Late in the afternoon, dark, thunderous clouds moved in from the south, blowing over several of tents that are staked down in the sandy soil. The temperature, which had peaked at midday at 92, cooled down rapidly. Those remaining in the camp scurried around, restaking tents and tying lines to trees to keep them from uprooting. Then the rain settled in again for an hour or so.

And this is supposed to be the dry season in Equatorial Guinea.

I’m making arrangements to go out this evening with some of the guards who patrol the beaches here to discourage turtle poaching – the Bioko project has hired a few dozen locals to protect the sea turtles that nest here this time of year. We hope to put together a story on their work for the newspaper in the coming days.

If the weather holds.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

A beach landing in the rainforest

December 29, 2004
Moraka Beach, Equatorial Guinea
N 3.25878° E 8.48594 ° Elevation 8 feet. Temp: 79° F

There’s a reason they call this a rainforest.

In the four hours since our expedition to save endangered species arrived at this remote beach on the southern coast of Bioko island, we’ve probably seen at least one inch out of the more than 30 feet of rain that falls here every year. We’re pretty much drenched. Fortunately, our gear was stored in rubberized dry bags, so our stuff is in good shape.

The boat that brought us here just departed with a toot of its horn. Amerada Hess, one of the oil companies drilling in Equatorial Guinea’s waters, gave a huge gift to the Arcadia University project by using one of its work boats to bring the expedition here.

We loaded our gear on the 152-foot Seabulk St. Tammany this morning at the port in Malabo, on the north side of Bioko island. Last year the expedition had to make its way to the remote southern beaches in locally built wooden boats called cayucos. Crammed into the boats, expedition members said it took eight hours last year to sail around the island to make the landing at Moraka beach. All day in a hot boat, and no toilets.

Our journey was luxurious by comparison. The St. Tammany steams along at 18 knots, so it got us here in three hours. The crew provided us with cold soft drinks and Danish. “Oh, I like this boat,” said Gail W. Hearn, the Arcadia biology professor who is leading the expedition. “This is the way to travel, eating pastries.”

As we rounded the southwest corner of Bioko island, the group paused to observe a local custom – taking a sip of rum, but throwing some of it overboard to acknowledge the ancestors. Claudio Posa, one of the local professors who has joined the expedition, said the custom would bring us good luck and good weather.

Soon thereafter, it started to rain.

As we circled Bioko island, the dramatic landscape played out in front of us – the base of an ancient volcano, its sides cut by deep ravines and covered in dense forest, with misty clouds rising from the chasms. About 20 porters were waiting for us on the black-sand beach – word had been sent ahead that Doctora Hearn’s group from Philadelphia was returning for its annual expedition. There were hugs and abrazos all around. The people here seem very fond and loyal to Hearn and Wayne A. Morra, the other Arcadia professor who leads the mission.

The St. Tammany’s captain kept the vessel a few hundred yards offshore while we ferried the group and our goods to shore (the expedition numbers 24 people – less than anticipated because there were a few late cancellations). It took nearly four hours to bring all our luggage ashore in two small inflatable boats. The boats had to thread through the surf without hitting an outcropping of volcanic rocks upon which the Atlantic crashed. The crew of the St. Tammany did an expert job. Only once did the inflatable boat capsize as it made its way through the surf. No damage, thanks to the dry bags.

We’re setting up our tents around a wooden house that was built here in the 90s with the hope that tourists soon would come. It’s now occupied by some of the guards that Arcadia employs to keep poachers away from the sea turtles that nest on these beaches.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Of bushmeat and breakfast tests

December 28, 2004
Malabo, Equatorial Guinea
N 3.74949° E 8.76031 Elevation 122 feet. Temp: 88° F

The Arcadia University expedition to Bioko sped through an intense day of buying, collecting and sorting gear for our journey tomorrow to the island’s southern highlands.

Earlier I had published an estimate that the group of about 30 people would take about a ton of gear by boat and make a beach landing before beginning two weeks of searching for endangered animals. But it’s clear that estimate was too conservative. Today the group’s leaders bought a half ton of rice alone. Then you start counting beans, sugar, coffee and cases of canned sardines and tomato paste. Bags of toilet paper, soap, tea. Satellite telephones and three generators, along with maybe 20 gallons of fuel. There’s an inflatable Zodiac boat (which developed a leak that fortunately was repaired with a tire patch). The group is bringing about 16 tents. Lifejackets for everyone. And each person is carrying their own personal gear, including lunches for two weeks. We are packing heavy.

The plan is to depart at dawn on Wednesday.

Today began on a sad note and then went downhill fast. We checked the Internet and learned that the Iggles lost the game on Monday Night Football – we’re six hours ahead of the East Coast, so the game actually ended around dawn here. And then we got news about the devastation from the tsunami in Asia, and the scale of the disaster is beginning to sink in.

Later, I and Barbara Johnston, the Inquirer’s photographer, went to the central market in Malabo to work on a story about the bushmeat market. This is the place where much of the carcasses of wild animals – including several endangered primates – are sold to be eaten.

I spent some time at the market a few weeks ago when I made a fact-finding mission to Malabo to set up the permits for us to do our work. There weren’t as many animals in the market this time as there were before – we were told the market gets busier toward the weekend.

But it was equally repugnant this time as last.

It’s pretty hard to suspend judgment and consider the consumption of wild animals in a cultural context. Actually, I had to suppress the urge to hurl. The stench, the appearance of poorly preserved animals oozing and attracting flies, it nearly overwhelmed my journalistic sense of detachment. Hats off to Barbara, who really stuck her lens close to the pile of carcasses to capture the image of the market vendors blithely fanning the flies from the food. It took a couple of hours to get the market odor out of my clothes after we left. I hope the story I wrote for Wednesday’s paper on bushmeat passes the “breakfast test” – that’s the term we use for a story that is so gross it makes readers unable to their finish breakfast. I’ll let the editors be the judge of that.

Meanwhile, the Arcadia expedition leaders – Professors Gail W. Hearn and Wayne A. Morra – have so far been unable to get a satellite telephone released from custody. Airport customs agents confiscated the phone when our group arrived on Sunday (several more got through, fortunately, so we are not entirely incommunicado). Officials at ExxonMobil, the leading oil producer in Equatorial Guinea, which is providing logistical support to the expedition, wrote a letters to several ministers seeking the telephone’s release. The head of the National University of Equatorial Guinea also promised to see what he could do. But despite lots of letters and strings pulled, the telephone is still being held hostage. It makes me grateful that I was able to get the Inquirer’s permits in order earlier this month in only five days of schmoozing and letter writing – at the time, it seemed like forever. That gives you an idea of how much patience it takes to work in this country – not just for journalists and academics, but any business that wants to invest in this place.

But as they say with a sigh around the continent, T.A.B. – That’s Africa, Baby.

Monday, December 27, 2004

Warnings about worms and coups

December 27, 2004
Malabo, Equatorial Guinea
N 3.74949° E 8.76031 Elevation 122 feet. Temp: 85° F

We woke this morning to a light drizzle on our tents, which did not raise my spirits because we are staying at the dry end of Bioko island, and this is supposed to be the dry season in Equatorial Guinea. The rainforest on the southern end of Bioko, where we are traveling in two days to begin our quest to count endangered animals, gets much more rain. I’ll try not to read too much into this early precipitation – we’re on a scientific mission here, so we are motivated by facts, not superstition. I’ll just consider it a friendly reminder that we are working in a humid climate.

The Arcadia University leaders of the expedition outlined some rules of proper behavior in Equatorial Guinea, whose people seem very friendly, though slightly suspicious of outsiders. The government here is hardly unique in Africa, where most colonists departed abruptly in the ’60s, leaving nations ill-equipped to govern themselves democratically. The Equatoguinean regime has been in power for 25 years, surviving periodic coup attempts, some real and others that look suspiciously more like manufactured pretexts for cracking down on the opposition. Freedom of expression is a foreign concept – the state owns the TV station, the radio station and the monthly newspaper –newspapers are not exactly a powerful medium in this part of the world. Nevertheless, the government does appear to be investing some of its resources into upgrading its infrastructure – the national university is improving each year. T

he Arcadia visitors were told this morning that it’s best to stay quiet about the government. “We’re apolitical,” said Wayne A. Morra, an economics professor who is co-leader of the expedition. “We’re here for the animals.”

Speaking of animals, our group received some thought-provoking guidance this morning from our hosts, the local ExxonMobil subsidiary that has allowed us to camp on their soccer field. The oil company’s medic treated us to a lecture about snakes, HIV-AIDS, malaria and other parasitical ailments that we may encounter. My favorite was the mango fly, whose larvae burrow themselves beneath the skin, causing a horrible boil. They are treated with a generous coating of Vaseline, which causes the worm to gasp for air and erupt to the skin’s surface in a matter of minutes. Gail W. Hearn, the biologist leading the expedition, pointed out that it was only a maggot. A couple of the expedition members cringed after hearing that description.

At the conclusion of the medic’s lecture, there was a small stampede to his office to get new supplies of repellant and insecticides.

The ExxonMobil security chief gave us a talk about avoiding crime, and also what to do in case of a coup – namely, do everything you can to get out of the way and look unthreatening to the government. Many of the members of the expedition have never been to a country like Equatorial Guinea, so I think they already have experienced something that most tourists don’t get to tell their friends when they return home.

Meanwhile, the group is preparing the gear for our trek. It’s all laid out under an awning on the soccer field. We’re carrying quite a lot of stuff – tents, cooking utensils, stoves, lanterns, life jackets, generators, satellite telephones – enough for the 30 or so members of the expedition, plus food for everyone, including 20 porters. The Zodiac boat that the group would use to send for help in an emergency was inflated and discovered to contain a hole. But it’s better to discover that now than when a real emergency arises.

And speaking of real emergencies, I glanced at a television at the oil company compound and caught an update on the tsunamis that have devastated the Indian Ocean coast. It was a brief, shocking glimpse at the rest of the world beyond our island.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Arrival in Malabo

December 26, 2004
Malabo, Equatorial Guinea
N 3.74647° E 8.77472 Elevation 126 feet. Temp: 86° F

Our group arrived in Malabo this afternoon, safe and sound, though a little weary from more than 24 hours of continuous travel. I am a little sleep-deprived after two six-hour flights on crowded planes, where I unfortunately sat in front of passengers who could not keep their feet off the back of my seat.

The Malabo airport is new and modern, thanks to the oil income that has been flowing into this tiny nation for the last decade. But the airport officials still follow Africa’s old rules. The customs agents at the airport took a dislike to the camouflage gaiters that an Arcadia student brought in -- the expedition leaders had warned us to avoid anything with a military appearance. After a coup attempt earlier this year, the government is suspicious of anything that might be used to topple the president, even a pair of cammy spats. The student was taken in for questioning, along with Gail W. Hearn, the Arcadia professor who is leading the expedition. They were released a short while later, although the agents kept one of the expedition’s satellite telephones for reasons that are not entirely clear. The expedition’s local friends seem to think they will get the equipment returned without difficulty. This is a pretty normal reception in a place like Equatorial Guinea.

Barbara, the photographer, and I got through customs without too much hassle – I think the agents were bored with our group by the time we slogged through. We certainly carried enough stuff to cause alarm, but the agent just shrugged at the items we had containing our satellite telephone and Barbara’s extensive camera collection.

We’re setting up tents on the lawn of one of the oil companies that is working in Equatorial Guinea, ExxonMobil, whose local subsidiary provides support to the Arcadia expedition. We will be treated to oil company food and access to their showers until Wednesday, when a boat has been arranged to take us to the southern end of Bioko island, where our expedition will venture into really wild country. The boat is also being provided by an oil company, Amerada Hess. The Arcadia people seemed to have established conducive relations here with people who can get things done.

It is very muggy in Equatorial Guinea, quite a shock to my system after Philadelphia, where I took a walk yesterday morning at daybreak and the temperature measured 16 degrees. There is so much humidity here that the air-conditioning system in the plane began to spew out fog as soon as the aircraft hit the ground – a strange disco effect to disembarking.

I’ve talked my way into an office at the National University of Equatorial Guinea where I’ve connected to the Internet. The Arcadia folks, funded by a grant from an oil company, set up the Internet connection here.
Untitled Document